HELENA — Montana judicial candidates cannot legally receive contributions from political parties, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The panel overturned a lower judge's decision that would have allowed political parties to make campaign contributions to candidates in nonpartisan judicial races in Montana. However, the judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed a ruling it made last year that the state's ban on party endorsements and expenditures in those races is unconstitutional.
The three-judge panel's order upheld U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell's permanent injunction of a state ban on party endorsements and expenditures in judicial elections.
The panel said that portion of the state law was an unconstitutional violation of the parties' free-speech rights. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision made it clear that the First Amendment issue applies to the Montana ban on partisan judicial endorsements, according to the 9th Circuit ruling in the same case on 2012.
Lovell used that ruling to order a permanent injunction banning the entire state law that says it is illegal for a political party to endorse, contribute to or make expenditures to support or oppose a judicial candidate.
However, the panel said Friday that Lovell overstepped when he included party contributions in the injunction. The appellate court last year did not rule on contributions by political parties. And the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, which filed the lawsuit, had not challenged that part of the law.
The 9th Circuit panel ordered Lovell to lift that part of his order — which will reinstate the ban on party contributions — but it allowed the rest of the injunction to remain in place.
The Sanders County GOP committee sued the state in 2012, saying it wanted to endorse candidates who share its judicial philosophy, "given the increasing intrusions by state judges into areas of policy reserved to the Montana Legislature."
Adding the voices of political parties to the public debate would not change the nonpartisan elections, but to suppress those voices is a violation of their First Amendment rights, it said in its brief to the 9th Circuit.
The state argued political parties have no constitutional right to partisan activity in nonpartisan elections. Montana's judicial elections have been nonpartisan since 1935, which reflects the judgment of its citizens to preserve the impartiality of the judiciary, the state's brief said.
The state law is a valid exercise of the state's constitutionally protected sovereignty, state attorneys said in asking for Lovell's injunction to be lifted.